“I want to quit,” Jo said, turning away from the window she was washing to stare at me across the counter of the Safe Harbor Café. The late afternoon light turned her short, spiky hair into a bright halo against her pale skin.
“Okay. You don’t work here anyway.” I had to squint when I looked at her. The thin curtains did nothing to block the light.
“That’s not what I mean, Harper.” She resumed, rubbing the glass with a squeak, squeak, squeak.
“Yeah, I know.” I glanced up from the piles of money I was counting from the register. We had made a whopping seventy dollars at lunch. After years of doing it, I could close the register and talk at the same time.
“No, I mean it this time.” She crawled out of the booth. She abandoned her squeegee and spray on the table before sitting on one of the low, tiffany blue stools that lined the counter. She sat, legs spread with one hand propping her face up. “I want to go to LA and start a band. I can’t spend my life in endless suburban sprawl and scrub pine. I want to be in the city and create. I want to feel alive. I want to make art, man.”
“That’s nice. I want to go on vacation to Paris.” I looked out the door of the diner at the cracked parking lot and the fading fall sunlight. The trees still held their leaves, and the area around the Safe Harbor Café was still heavily forested, despite the slow creep of the big-box stores down the road.
“Yeah, but you’re never going to go to Paris. Even if you have six weeks off. You’d just sit in your house and knit or some crap. If I could just get out of here, I would go. I have dreams. I have things I want to do.”
“My dream is to heal people and have my own restaurant. So, I’m winning. I do have wants. I want you to clean the rest of the windows. The pack meeting is tonight.” I looked pointedly at the half-cleaned glass. The front of the Safe Harbor Café was lined with windows, each framed in seersucker blue and white curtains that matched the stools.
“Can’t you help me, Harper?” Jo pleaded.
“Sure. I can finish the windows for you.”
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”
I put down the stack of cash I was holding and looked at her. “No, Jo. You’re a cleaner. I’m a guardian. I can’t break your contract with the spirit of the café. Even if I could, I wouldn’t. We have a responsibility to this community to make sure that the peace is kept, the hurt is healed, and that any chance of exposure is cleaned up.”
“You know this is slavery, right?” Jo asked.
“It’s not. The café protects us. How many people want a person with your power just wandering around? Or with Lily’s? It keeps me from burning out my life force healing. Staying here keeps us safe, even if we can’t go play our guitars.” I picked the money back up and started counting again.
Jo didn’t get the hint. “C’mon, can’t you just call the LA guardhouse? I hear it manifests as a theater out there. Can’t you see if someone there has lost their mind and wants to come to wash windows in a guardhouse diner in nowheresville instead of California?”
“I can’t. It doesn’t work like that. Your bond is with the Safe Harbor Café. But if you finish the rest of the windows, you can leave before the meeting. Lily and I can serve and clean up after the alphas leave.”
The stool Jo was sitting on suddenly tipped forward, dumping her unceremoniously onto the floor. The Safe Harbor Café clearly objected to her current daydream.
“Fine.” Jo stomped back to the booth and started rubbing the windows like they had offended her. Since Safe Harbor was the guardhouse and inhabited by the spirit that held her contract. Technically, the windows had offended her.
Jo left with a grumbled goodbye. I went to the kitchen to start cooking. The café turned up my favorite song. I had sloppy joes to plate and sweet potatoes to fry. Moving around the kitchen in a practiced routine soothed me. Lily, the other guardian, shoved the swinging door of the kitchen open and yelled “Hello” over the music to let me know she was there. She headed into the dining room to arrange things for the meeting.
Once a month, all the wolf alphas in the area came in for a sit-down at the diner in its official capacity as an area guardhouse. The wolves held their meeting on the last quarter moon of every cycle. I would make an absurd amount of food, and they would devour it all. But occasionally, they would moan that the fare was too light. How they could complain about my winter squash soup?—I’ll never know, but I had stopped serving it. “Prey food,” they’d called it. I also made a couple carafes of coffee and six of hot chocolate. All the wolves claimed to drink black coffee, but mysteriously, they would clean me out of hot chocolate every time.
The Safe Harbor Café was officially neutral ground. Lily, my fellow guardian, was a null, which made it the perfect place for a meeting. The wolves couldn’t transform in her presence. As a healer, they didn’t need me for the sit-down, except to cook. The spirit of the Safe Harbor Café could have arranged the chairs for the sit-down, but for whatever reason, it chose not to. Lily moved them while I prepped the food.
Most of the seating in the Safe Harbor Café consisted of a long white counter on the opposite side of the wall of the kitchen. Across from the counter was a row of booths. At the end of the diner, opposite the door, were a collection of tables. There was a slight lip, and the floor there was higher than the rest of the diner. Lily pushed all the tables together to make one big one. She brought out the food to arrange it on the counter that would double as a buffet table. She lived the pin-up lifestyle twenty-four seven. I thought it was way too much work. But she loved it, and she eternally looked perfect. Her skin was always matte and white, her lips always red, her hair always teased high. She almost always wore heels and dresses. Not just casual dresses, either, but great, poofy things that required special undergarments. Her purse matched her shoes, and she looked just so like a perfect photograph of a time that only existed in her mind.
My job was over—until it was time to clean up—so I would just hang out in the kitchen until they finished the meeting. Sometimes I used the time to do my least favorite tasks, like washing the big rubber mats that lined the kitchen floor or cleaning all the seals on the fridges. But most of the time, I just sat in my favorite spot with my back against the walk-in and read or knitted until it was time to clean. That’s where I was sitting when Jen, one of the local wolves, came in.
“Has my sister been in?” she hissed and glanced nervously over her shoulder toward the room where everyone else was meeting.
“Hey, Jen!” I said, looking up from my book. Jen’s face was grim, so I closed my book and asked, “Which sister?”
“Alice,” she replied.
Alice was Jen’s younger sister. I wasn’t close to her. She taught school, camped, and ran marathons. My hobbies tended to be more sedentary, like, knitting, reading, baking, and eating things I baked. I didn’t have a ton in common with a woman who woke up at 5:00 a.m. to log a few miles before the school day started.
“Yeah.” Jen crossed the kitchen and sat down on the floor next to me. She was wearing jeans, short booties, and an ivory shirt. Her black hair looked effortless and elegant. She smelled of peppermint and wild orange.
I closed my book and pulled my knees up to hide the fact that my sneakers had a hole in them. I looked at Jen. She was crying, silently and beautifully. “Oh no, what’s wrong?” I asked and awkwardly tried to put my arm around her. She covered her face and fell into me. I rubbed her back as she shook and waited for her to speak. When she stopped shaking, I patted her back and asked, “Do you want some cake? I have a cardamom chocolate cake in the fridge.”
Jen laughed, but her laughter came out low and scratchy from crying. “Yes, Harper. I’ll take some cake.”
I jumped up and put my book on the pile of milk crates by the walk-in refrigerator. The chocolate cake was in a cooler. I topped a slice with candied lemon balm leaves. I was grateful to do something—anything—to help her feel better. Jen stayed on the floor, her hair slightly loose and her makeup faintly smeared. She looked tired, like she hadn’t slept in weeks. It was like she had aged three years since the last time she had been in a few weeks ago.
I told her, “Eat the leaves first,” putting down the plate and sitting next to her, “they’re good for sadness.” The slice of the cake looked a little bare without its dusting of cocoa, but I hadn’t wanted to take the time to plate it better.
She said, “I doubt there are enough leaves on the entire plant to help me,” eating the leaves. “I hope this sits right. I’ve had a rotten gut all week.”
“It will. Cardamom is good for the stomach.” I sat next to her and watched her eat the whole slice in delicate bites. I didn’t speak until she finished. She set the plate down next to her and leaned her head back.
“Thank you; that was good.” Jen covered her face with her hands as if she was hiding and said from behind them, “Harper, my sister is missing,” she said.
“Are you sure?” I asked and then winced at how dumb my question sounded. “I guess,” I stammered, “I mean, how do you know?”
“She hasn’t called any of us, not mom, or my sister, not even my brother. Even when she’s mad at one of us, she’s always stayed in touch with the others. She always stays in touch with the pack. We went to her house—” she stopped speaking for a moment, her words cut off with tears. I reached out and rubbed her shoulders, and she leaned up against me. “She wasn’t there. Her phone, her charger, her toothbrush, everything was there. But not her. Oh, Harper. I have no idea what happened to her. It’s not like she would have been easy to hurt. She’s a grown wolf and a marathon runner to boot. My brothers said they smelled a strange man but only in the front room.”
“Oh, Jen, I’m so sorry,” I said uselessly and resisted the urge to offer her a second slice of cake.
“It’s okay. It’s not your fault. Has Alice come here? Do you know anything?” She looked at me beseechingly.
“No, I’m sorry. Have any of the other packs heard anything?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Dad is going to mention it at the meeting tonight. Mom told him if he didn’t, she would. He doesn’t want to look weak, but I don’t know how we’ll find her alone. I don’t know if she ran off somewhere, or if someone took her, or what. None of it makes sense.” We sat together on the floor until the end of the meeting when one of her brothers texted her to tell her it was over. I got her to eat a second slice of cake and sent her home with some candied lemon balm leaves. For a while, I lurked around the door out to the dining room, trying to hear if Jen’s father brought up his missing daughter. They were too far away, and I couldn’t hear anything. I’d have to wait for Lily to find out what happened. She stayed in the front of the house for the meeting, using her nullification powers to keep anyone from shifting when tensions ran high. I tried to go back to my book but struggled to focus on the story. To try to distract myself, I started the dishes early.
When Lily came in the back at the end of the meeting, she carried a stack of dishes with her and dropped them into the rinse sink, where I was working. Without saying anything, I moved over so she could rinse while I washed. We had an established pattern as the dishes moved between us in their orderly fashion of wash, rinse, and sanitize. We fell into a sort of quiet calm.
Lily broke it first. “Did Jen tell you about her sister?” she asked.
“Yeah, isn’t it terrible? Her dad brought it up at the meeting?” I asked.
“The other wolves were total assholes to him about it. I couldn’t believe it. They accused him of being weak. I thought he was going to rip someone’s head off with his bare hands,” Lily said, shaking her head.
“Do you think they can help him?” I asked.
“I don’t know if anyone can. Alice has been missing for a couple of weeks. Apparently, when they went over to her house, they smelled a human in the front room, but nowhere else. All her stuff was still there,” Lily said.
“It’s so scary. I hope she’s alright.” I pulled the plug out of the drain. The water was cool, and I had to pick bits of food out of the drain to get it to drain.
“I doubt she’s alright. I doubt it very much,” Lily replied.